and Scott of Gilston
The story of the “Mysterious Gig” was serialised in the Falkirk Herald in January 1891. It is a true story and of an incident that occurred on 19 March 1823 and its telling relied upon the fading memories of the participants and witnesses as well as upon family traditions. Later in 1891 a new newspaper, the Linlithgow Gazette, was established in the royal burgh and so it is not surprising to find that the account was repeated there in March 1897. There, a little more explanation was added to cover the apparently odd actions that took place on the day in question, though these were not really necessary and as they take away from the immediacy of the description they are not included in what follows. A few extra details were also added in the Gazette’s version, presumably as a result of reaction to the earlier one. Here, references to people and places contemporary to the publication of the story have been omitted where they are considered spurious to the main story; as have classical allusions which were in fashion at that time. To help foreigners such as myself, some of the words in the Scots dialect have been marked with an asterisk and their meaning can be found at the end of this article.
Brief mention of the event was made in Gillespie’s book “Round about Falkirk” in 1868 and he incorporated them into his edition of “The History of Stirlingshire.” There is also a good reminiscence in the Falkirk Herald of 25 July 1867. However, proof of the veracity of the account can be found in a chapbook printed in Falkirk as early as 1823 itself by R Taylor and entitled “SEIZURE EXTRAORDINARY AT LINLITHGOW, BY MR SCOTT, SEN., OF GILSTON, AND OTHERS!” Falkirk was a major centre for the production of such popular literature at the time.
The author of the 1891 account is not known but in acknowledgement to them the fast-flowing style with its deliberate variations in pace has been retained:
On a beautiful evening in the spring of 1823, the tolerably peaceful community of the ancient burgh of Linlithgow was suddenly thrown into a state of excitement, the like of which had not been witnessed since the Jacobite visitation. Those monsters in the shape of human beings, who bore the sobriquet of “Resurrectionists” were about, and the very mention, at that time, of their presence in any locality in Scotland was sufficient to call forth the utmost indignation, and at the same time a strong desire on the part of the members of the community to give them a warm reception and a quick despatch. It was suspected that the fiends had been pursuing their gruesome avocations in the neighbourhood, and that the devilish work was being carried on in such a manner and under such circumstances as to cause many citizens at a later date to express the belief that there were those in authority who, if not actually conniving at the hideous work, were, at all events, not entirely ignorant of what was going on, and there were circumstances which often pointed to a glaring dereliction of duty on the part of those whose business it was to have been the first to assist in the detection of the offenders.
But this was not peculiar to Falkirk or Linlithgow. It was pretty general all over Scotland, and in many towns and villages there were those who, by their fellow-townsmen, were sometimes suspected of being participators in the ghastly work. Indeed, it was even opined that certain residents shared in the proceeds derived from the sale of “subjects.” But while this may have been so, it is quite evident that Scott of Gilston was not one of these, as will be seen.
In the first decades of the nineteenth century it was pretty generally believed that the churchyards in the neighbourhood of Polmont and Larbert were occasionally frequented by Resurrectionists, although, up to the time of the Linlithgow Incident, the people had never succeeded in arresting the depredators or riflers of the peaceful tomb, whose actions had caused much sorrow and vexation to many residents in the locality.
On the never-to-be-forgotten night on which our incident occurred, a horse and trap, with two men, came dashing along from the direction of Linlithgow Bridge towards the burgh of Linlithgow. The trap was closely pursued by a man on horseback, and it was observed that both horse and rider were in a perfect flood of perspiration. Ever and anon, as he galloped along the public highway, there proceeded from the lips of the frenzied rider this strange ejaculation – “Corpse in the gig – Corpse in the gig.” The passers-by paused in wonder and amazement, and many marvelled as to whether the mysterious utterances and peculiar sounds which fell on their ears were not those of some dangerous maniac, who had perhaps escaped the surveillance and custody of his keeper – but not so. The individual whose apparently strange and insane-like demeanour had thus so suddenly aroused the curiosity of the peaceful villagers of Linlithgow Bridge, was none other than the genial and industrious farmer of Gilston, whose exploit on this eventful occasion entered local legend.
On the morning of the day in question two of the men-servants at the farm of Gilston, near Polmont, were engaged carting manure from a dunghill in the vicinity of the steading, and conveying it to an adjoining field. The men had not long commenced operations when they were somewhat startled by the discovery of human remains in the dunghill, where they had evidently been buried but a short time previously. As was to have been expected, the servants made the fact known to their master; and Mr Scott, in view of the many rumours which had been afloat in the locality as to the robbing of graves of their dead, took the situation in at a glance, and his thoughts naturally reverted to the Resurrectionist men. Suspecting that the body had been hidden at the place mentioned for a particular purpose, he decided to keep a look-out, with the intention, if possible, of tracking the miscreant. With this purpose in view, he dispatched one of his orra* lads with a horse to harrow the land in the vicinity of the dunghill, giving him at the same time special instructions to keep a close watch on the manure-heap, and to give intimation whenever a stranger made his appearance in the vicinity.
Scott himself, too, as might be supposed after the discovery, was ever on the alert, and for a time the residents on the farm were kept in a perfect state of excitement. As had been anticipated, the men did turn up for their booty, and Scott having been apprised of the visit, he, from a secluded position, watched the men in the most surreptitious manner proceed to remove the corpse from the dunghill, and convey it with all haste to the main road, where a horse and machine was waiting in readiness to receive the dead bodies. Their task thus far accomplished, the ruffians mounted the gig, and at once drove off, little reckoning, however, the consequences that were to follow on their arrival within the precincts of the ancient burgh.
In the interval, Scott had saddled one of his ponies and was soon in hot pursuit, his stentorian shouts of “Corpse in the gig,” rending the air from Gilston to Linlithgow. On reaching the West Port, the occupants of the trap had evidently become scared at the persistent alarm which was being given forth by the sturdy farmer, and in order, it was thought, to mislead the doughty Scott, one of the men hurriedly left the vehicle just as it passed “Katie Wearie’s Dub,” and with the alacrity of a deer, bolted along the Bo’ness Road, where he was soon lost sight of.
“Corpse in the gig! Corpse in the gig,” shouted Scott, but still the vehicle, with its ghastly burden, proceeded on its course.
Scott, it should be mentioned, was unfortunate in having an awkward impediment in his speech, and this in itself prevented the people responding to the alarm so quickly as they might otherwise have done. After the man had left the vehicle at the West Port, the farmer braced himself up to greater effort and determination, and onward he galloped, past Beancastle Brae, yelling all the while at the pitch of his voice – “Corpse in the gig!” Corpse in the gig!”
By this time, however, the inhabitants had begun to realise that all was not well – that some dreadful catastrophe had occurred, and although failing to grasp the meaning of the somewhat mysterious words which were being uttered by the dauntless horseman, they nevertheless turned out in large numbers, and followed the rider of the grey pony eastward along the street. Just as the gig was approaching the Lion Well Wynd, a well-known citizen, named Jamie Douglas, a slater to trade, who chanced to be passing, having had his attention attracted by the cries of the farmer of Gilston, hastened to the middle of the street and seized the horse attached to the gig by the head.
“Haud a wee, my man,” said Jamie, “Ye shurely haena paid the lawin’, else what’s a’ the steer?”
“Hold off there,” shouted the man on the box, in quivering accents, “who are you that would seek to interfere with people passing through the town?”
“No’ a man o’ muckle importance,” replied Douglas, with a touch of sarcasm, “but sin’ ye’ve asked the question I’ll answer it by speirin’ wha are you?”
The expression of the man’s countenance was perhaps more eloquent than words. Whether he felt it or not, there was no doubt that in such a precarious situation discretion was the better part of valour. Wordy altercation simply meant exasperation, and so the custodian of the gig uttered not another syllable. Applying the whip to the horse, he essayed to urge the animal forward, but to little purpose. The horse did move forward, but the vice-like grasp of the sturdy, if somewhat uncouth, slater, was not to be relaxed until the why and the wherefore of the unusual commotion had been ascertained.
“Here, Rab,” cried Douglas, beckoning to another well-known citizen, Robert Harvie, “come awa’ man an’ see an’ ye can gie’s a haun’ tae unravel this mystery – he’s a queer chap this, I’m thinkin’.”
“Ay,” said Rab, with a suspicious upward glance at the man in the vehicle, “an’ maybe his errand just as queer.”
Harvie, it should be explained, was the Glasgow carrier, and in respect of his avocation was well-known not merely in the town, but far beyond its marches. Like most other folks, Rab was astonished at hearing what he called “the hue and cry,” but knowing Scott well, he was almost the only one who could understand the curious ejaculation – curious because of the impediment in speech – of his friend from Gilston.
On getting a signal from Scott, Rab placed himself by the side of Jamie Douglas at the horse’s head. The driver persisted, of course, in urging his horse on, but those around thought otherwise, and by the combined efforts of Douglas and Harvie, the vehicle was eventually brought to a standstill.
Bailie Callendar, who by this time had approached the scene, on ascertaining the reason of the turmoil, took a knife from his pocket, and there and then severed the tracings. At this performance a loud cheer was raised.
Then it was that the Resurrectionist realised that he was in deep trouble. No quarters were to be offered the daring disturber of the sacred receptacles of the dead. The people were now up in arms and uncompromising to a degree. The harrowing and blood-curdling words of the farmer of Gilston, which had been so quickly interpreted by Rab Harvie, the carrier, and which had scarce died away in the serenity of the withal peaceful gloaming, were still ringing in the ears of the people, and for a considerable time the equilibrium of the old burgh was completely upset. Old and young were equally alarmed, and judging by the manifestations of the people it was quite evident that the finer feelings of their nature were much affected on hearing of the sacrilegious outrages on the sacred and hallowed dominion of God’s Acre.
That being so, it was not to be wondered at that the citizens of the royal burgh, in common with the people of the country at that time, should have evinced a strong desire, when opportunity presented itself, of resenting the perpetration in their midst of the deeds which were at once barbaric and revolting, and that, too, even at the risk of being accused at the hands of the learned Corporation of Surgeons of being an impediment to the progress and advancement of science, and the education of the student of anatomy. The veneration which a people have for the dead, is and has ever been, such as to cause them to have a natural horror at interference, in whatever shape of form, with the sacred serenity of the tomb.
Such, then, was the feeling with which the inhabitants of the town approached the situation on the night in question, and if their conduct towards the offender was somewhat rough and unceremonious in its character, it was no more than the circumstances of the case and the hideous nature of the offence demanded. Indeed, the daring churchyard plunderer might have travelled further and fared worse, for in the view of many manifestations of indignation, it was a matter of surprise that the detested individual was not torn to pieces by the infuriated crowd who surrounded the vehicle. As it was, however, he experienced that night, if never before, what might be likened to a warm reception at the hands of the Philistines, and, as will be afterwards seen, before he escaped the clutch of the wrathful sons of St Michael, he was, in a marked degree, the recipient of more kicks than half-pence.
The progress of the gig had been effectually checked by Jamie Douglas, the slater, locally known as “The Duke.” Rab Harvie, too, was prominent in the capture and between him and Douglas there was raised a barrier, which proved a decided obstacle to the further movement of the gig for all time coming. As might be expected, the driver did his utmost to ward off the obstruction, but Douglas and Harvie were not to be trifled with. Despite all efforts on the part of the man to proceed, Douglas held the animal firmly by the head, and in a manner which permitted of no humbug, demanded of the Resurrectionist an explanation of his conduct.
The stranger attempted to equivocate, but Douglas’s determined attitude was not to be misunderstood. He would have no denial, and prompted by the chivalrous, but still perspiring farmer of Gilston, he made the custodier of the vehicle aware, in the most emphatic manner, that there was to be no bandying of words – that neither he nor the doughty Scott of Gilston were men to be trifled with.
By this time a large concourse of people had collected in the vicinity of the Lion Well Wynd and the word having gone forth that a Resurrectionist man had been caught, the citizens continued to gather quickly from all parts of the burgh, and for a time the utmost excitement prevailed. The assemblage was composed of shoemakers, tanners, curriers, nailers, and other representatives of the staple industries of the town, the majority of whom, on coming to know that a diabolical outrage had been perpetrated in the neighbourhood, gave vent to expressions calculated to cause serious apprehension as to the fate of the driver of the vehicle.
Notwithstanding, however, the manifestations of hostility on the part of the enraged assemblage, the man, who now undoubtedly exhibited signs of uneasiness, still retained his seat on the trap. For some time he bluntly refused to abandon his charge, despite the warnings and persistent demands of Jamie Douglas, who still stood by the horse’s head, determined to know the whole facts as to the motives and mission of the stranger. Rab Harvie, too, ever and anon brandishing a racking pin which he held in his hand in the face of the callous hireling of the learned Corporation of Surgeons.
“Where is your warrant for catching my horse?” coolly inquired the Resurrectionist.
“Lift that cover at his feet – there’s corpse in the gig,” was the prompt reply of the doughty farmer of Gilston, who, with his pony, had all the time remained in close proximity to the trap. His words were addressed to Rab Harvie.
Harvie did as directed, and removing the covering from the feet of the driver exposed to the public gaze the nude, dead forms of three human beings, the bonnie yellow hair of one of the bodies, that of a young woman, being conspicuous, was specially remarked upon. [The young woman was aged about sixteen; the second body was that of a young man of twenty, which one of the onlookers recognised, notwithstanding its sunken eyes, as that of an old school-fellow, named John Brown, son of William Brown, farmer at Ochiltree Castle, who had been buried in the Parish Churchyard of Larbert just six weeks previously. The third was of a man unknown.]
In the meantime, Douglas or Harvie had conveyed to the more distant bystanders the information as to what the gig really contained, and on their thus ascertaining explicitly the nature of the vehicle’s freight, the state of public feeling may be better imagined than described.
It was quite evident that the man was now feeling the reverse of comfortable as he sat on the dickey of the gig enveloped in a large rachan* cloak – a piece of raiment which certainly did not tend to improve his general appearance. With reins in hand, he sat gazing in bewilderment on the infuriated mob which surrounded the vehicle, not knowing in which direction to turn himself or whither to look for succour.
The mystery had been unravelled and the designs exploded, and the detested ruffian, daring and dauntless though he had been, now felt himself surrounded with dangers on every side. To retain his seat on the gig was extremely precarious, and to descend to the street was virtually to place himself in the lion’s jaws. The situation was becoming more alarming, and from the tone of indignation which was being sounded on all hands, it was quite apparent that no mercy was to be shown the perpetrator of what had been generally described as an outrage of a most heinous and revolting character.
“Where is your warrant for stopping my horse?” again demanded the besieged and withal bold Resurrectionist.
“There’s your warrant,” said Scott of Gilston, addressing Rab Harvie, and pointing to the dead bodies in the vehicle. “That’s your warrant, Rab.”
The bystanders were evidently startled at what was considered the audacity of the interrogation, but the retort was brief and quick.
“Here is my warrant,” replied Rab Harvie, raising his racking pin in a determined attitude to the forehead of the callous custodian of the gig.
This latest act on the part of Harvie seemed to be the signal for a general attack, for no sooner had the words escaped the lips of the fearless carrier than a general rush was made for the vehicle, which in a few minutes was besieged on all sides.
“Lynch the scoundrel!” cried some of the bystanders; “Hang the villain!” ejaculated others; while the more indignant of the workmen who had been standing by, eager for the fray, were desirous of tearing the trap to pieces, and resorting to a process of Lynch law, as the most effectual means of appeasing their wrath at the iniquitous conduct of the wearer of the rachan cloak.
Nearly opposite that part of the street where the horse and trap had been brought to a standstill, on the north side of the street, stood Sanders [Alexander] Baird’s tannery. Sanders had a small bark-mill in connection with his works, and for long the tannery was a favourite resort with the younger generation of the burgh, who amused themselves by watching the modus operandi of the workmen engaged in the various operations associated with the process of tanning. The tannery was reached by a close leading from the High Street. Perceiving from the clamour of the enraged assemblage the imminent danger which threatened his person, the disreputable Resurrectionist, who either leaped or was dragged from the vehicle, endeavoured to make his escape by the close leading to the tannery of Sanders Baird. He had also tried to make his exit from the crowd by another close to the east of the wynd, but all to no purpose. The frantic efforts of the man to flee from vengeance were doomed to failure.
The determination of the farmer of Gilston and Rab Harvie to bring the intriguing miscreant to justice was not to be so easily frustrated, and one more shout from the indignant onlookers was the signal for pursuit. Even Sanders Baird, who meanwhile had come to understand the true nature of the unusual consternation, was equal to the occasion.
“Na, na,” said the shrewd Sanders, “there’s nae quarter for ye here; nae murderers will be allowed to enter my place.” [He was quickly thrust forth again, leaving his whip in the hand of Sanders, who long afterwards showed it as a relic.]
Baffled once more, the now notorious Resurrectionist was seized by the rachan cloak and dragged back to the street, where for a time, the situation had almost reached a climax. The antagonistic feeling of an incensed public was now exhibiting itself in an unmistakable degree. The people were literally frantic with rage, and on being dragged from the close to the street, the man was fiercely attacked by old and young. In the midst of the crowd, he was goaded and hustled about with the utmost scorn, knocked down and trampled upon, pulled by the cloak from one side of the street to the other, in the most unmerciful fashion.
“Lynch him! Lynch the monster,” shouted the infuriated burghers, whose threatening and shoutings were heard for a considerable distance along the old High Street.
Amongst the congregated citizens, sympathisers were few, if indeed there were any, and it was quite evident that the trader in human subjects had entered upon his ill-fated expedition not counting the cost. He could not have had the remotest idea of the opposition and hostility which fate had decreed was to be his inevitable experience in carrying out his fiendish and impious mission to the vicinities of Larbert and Polmont, and to the ancient burgh of the goodly St Michael, otherwise he should have thought twice ere he undertook the journey.
So mercilessly had the hide of the luckless Resurrectionist been belaboured by his captors that on reaching that part of the street where now stands the residence of Provost Gilmour, and wither he had been dragged by the crowd, the stranger, to whose ruthful pleadings the people turned a deaf ear, lay motionless – nay, almost lifeless – on the ground.
At this stage, Bailie Gibson, one of the dignitaries accountable for the peace of the burgh, and who had been an eye-witness of the scene, presuming, no doubt, that it was his duty, as a Magistrate, to protect the man against the violence of the lieges who surrounded him, hurried to the scene of conflict with the view of rescuing the besieged victim.
The genial and well-intended Bailie, however, was not long in discovering that the task he had undertaken was a hopeless one, and like the individual whom he sought to befriend, got more than he had bargained for, and that, too, notwithstanding the air of authority which attached to his sacred personage.
“What,” said the Bailie, on entering the crowd, “would ye kill the man outright? Fie on ye, toonsmen.”
“Stand back, Bailie,” shouted a dozen voices, “wad ye seek to protect a Resurrectionist? Gin ye wad see the country rid o’ a blackguard, Bailie, ye’ll gand yer wa’s.”
Such was the nature of the remarks which fell on the magistrate’s ear. In attempting to remonstrate with the party of attack, the Bailie only went further and fared worse. Seemingly annoyed at what was considered an uncalled for magisterial interference, some of the bystanders turned their attention to the Bailie, whose hat and spectacles were sent spinning across the road, to the delight of many onlookers, but certainly to the discomfiture of the man of authority. Failing in his attempt and realising that his presence there was to be more an incitement to disorder than a means of restoring peace the Bailie, beat a hasty retreat.
Bailie Gibson having made his exit from the crowd minus his hat and spectacles, the irritated burghers continued to pour their vengeance on the head of the already severely punished Resurrectionist. The man, however, had by this time got to his feet, but was still being pushed and dragged hither and thither by the assemblage, after the manner of the playful cat and the mouse. In the eyes of those responsible for the peace of the town matters were becoming rather serious, and the nature of certain forebodings was such as to create in the minds of the authorities grave fears of a riot. In the burgh, in those days, there was no lack of material, inflammable or otherwise, for such a purpose.
The man with the rachan cloak was still in the hands of the Philistines when the burgh officers, the local constables of the day, appeared on the scene. At this stage the Resurrectionist once more endeavoured to make good his escape and fleeing from the grasp of his captors he entered a shop on the south side of the High Street. He had only got inside the door, however, when he was pursued by a number of citizens. In utter desperation, he clung to the counter of the shop, pleading piteously for protection. But no refuge was to be offered the infamous scoundrel, and being obliged to release his hold, he was again brought to the street and escorted eastwards by the burgh officers. The officials, however, were utterly powerless to protect him from the jostling and buffetings of the crowd, and in his passage along the town the hunted Resurrectionist was scoffed and jeered at by all and sundry, and certainly the people were not over modest in their process of molestation. Everyone had a fling and a kick at the unwelcome, din-creating visitor.
In the custody of the burgh officers – which officials, by the way, were often called upon to perform duties of a multifarious character – the miserable individual was, with considerable difficulty, conveyed to the Town House, where he was confined in the Old Tolbooth connected with the buildings. The lockup, as it was familiarly designated, was in those days one of the landmarks of the old burgh, and many are the tales which have been told of scenes witnessed both within and without its historic walls. The names of the town’s officers at the time referred to were John Devine and James Bynes, the latter being better known perhaps by his sobriquet “Roosty Pikes.”
Although that disreputable being, the Resurrectionist, had now been safely lodged in the old prison, the ire of the lieges was far from being subdued, and the spirit of Nemesis still haunted the unfortunate Resurrectionist. In the meantime, however, the attention of the people had been turned to the horse and vehicle, and one Willie McDonald, who followed the occupation of a nailer, an industry which was wont to flourish in the burgh, appeared on the scene with a large fore-hammer intent on smashing the conveyance in the unusual episode. The horse and trap were led to the Cross, where the number of spectators had considerably increased, and the scene was more animated and livelier than ever.
The sacks containing the three bodies were removed from the gig, after being untied and lifted out on to the road, they were carried slowly and carefully up to the Town House and taken to an apartment where they were laid out on the floor. It was then seen that the hardened scoundrels had proceeded about their work in a most diabolical and inhuman fashion. It were perhaps better, however, out of respect to the feelings of our readers, that the curtain should now be drawn over this part of the ghastly picture. [Each was doubled up and tied together by a string drawn round its neck and under its knees.] The bodies were allowed to lie in this place in charge of the burgh authorities, until such time as the necessary investigations had been made, and to allow also of their being claimed by relatives or friends. In due course the remains of the young woman, whose golden locks were early descried on the arrest of the gig, were claimed by friends. And carried back to their resting place from which they had been surreptitiously torn by the Resurrectionists but a short time before. Her name was Moir, and the remains had been taken from Larbert churchyard [on its journey through Falkirk to be re-interred the impression made upon the inhabitants of that town is said to have been singularly solemn]. The other bodies were likewise claimed by relatives and re-interred in due course.
The horse having been unyoked, the gig was torn asunder by the mob, and pieces of the woodwork were carried away by many of the inhabitants as trophies. The youth of the burgh also played a conspicuous part in the work of destruction, and boys in high jinks could have been seen running about in all directions with portions of the iron which had been riven from the vehicle. At the Cross horse-play was freely indulged in, and latterly a spirit of sheer malice and wantonness seemed to prompt the actions of a considerable proportion of those who took part in the arrest of the man who had been placed under lock and key in the local Bridewell. The night was well spent but as time went on the clamour for vengeance only increased. The gig was smashed to atoms by the assemblage. The trams of the vehicle were riven asunder, and what portions had not been carried away were gathered together in a heap on the Cross Brae. [The body of the gig was dragged along the town, occasional halts being made to afford them an opportunity of having another smash at it. A stout young sawyer, who got hold of one of the shafts, declared it to be as tough a piece of wood as was ever put in a carriage, “the real hickory,” for it bent back to the very axle before it broke.] A huge bonfire was kindled, and all that remained of the gig was soon reduced to ashes. The flames from the raging beacon were seen a long way off, and many of the inhabitants, who witnessed the incident from surrounding windows and balconies, were, for a time, under the impression that the unfortunate Resurrectionist formed a part of the blazing faggot, and this belief was enhanced by the rachan cloak having been consigned to the flames. This erroneous impression, however, was soon dispelled. As the fire continued to perform its destructive work, the onlookers indulged in all sorts of mischievous pranks. To a visitor the proceedings were apt to have been interpreted as a celebration in honour of some national event instead of a mark of disapprobation at the perpetration of a scandalous outrage. The fire lasted for a considerable time, and even when well-nigh extinguished, the raking of the smouldering embers provided amusement for the numerous freakish and evil-disposed juveniles who had lingered at the scene of conflagration. [It is said that the shoemakers of Linlithgow had been celebrating before the incident and were already somewhat tipsy when the burning of the gig occurred.]
But while the process of burning the shattered portions of the vehicle was still being proceeded with, another ruse, by way of enlivening the proceedings, was being premeditated by a mischievous coterie of disciples of St Crispin. In the demolition of the gig, the wheels and axle had been kept intact, and these were seized by the party and carried along the street to the entrance to the Vennel. From this point they were hurled on the verge of the Loch, and, with mirthful exultation, pushed straight into the water. It was evidently intended that this detached portion of the gig should find a resting place beneath the placid waters of the lake; but the wheels had scarce ruffled the surface when a new idea took hold in the minds of the frolicsome souters*. The wheels were dragged from the loch and steps retraced towards the High Street. The wheels were conveyed to the premises of a well-known blacksmith, where they were offered for sale. The blacksmith was at first dilatory to have anything to do with the proffered article, at last consenting to bargain with the party, and having, it is said, purchased the wheels, the souters adjourned to the nearest ale-shop, and history has it that they got roarin fou on the proceeds of the sale.
Meanwhile, the pony was still in the possession of Rab Harvie. He had taken kindly to the beast, but there were many inhabitants who were for getting rid of it too. One man rushed forward with the intention of dealing it a blow.
“Stand back,” cried Rab, “wad ye punish the dumb animal? Na, na, my lad, ye’ll no get leave tae meddle wi the horse.”
For the time being Rab’s words were effectual, but the disposition of the more maliciously inclined was not altered, and a second attempt was made to strike the animal.
“I’ll tell ye,” said Rab, who was now getting somewhat nettled, “I gie ye this warning – the first man that strike the horse I’ll strike him wi my racking pin.”
And so saying the carrier raised the weapon named above his head with the view of giving emphasis to the threat which he had just held out. In this way Rab silenced his tormentors and no further attempts were made to do injury to the horse which was safely put under cover for the night.
While the somewhat malicious, and in many respects farcical, escapades of burning the gig and selling the wheels were being carried out by a few malcontents from among the Lithca souters and nailers, the notorious Resurrectionist was having time for reflection within the dingy precincts of the old jail. But even there he was in abject terror, hearing, as he did, the furore that was being created outside at the Cross and in the vicinity of the old Town House, and which commotion, be it understood, did not subside with the extinction of the bonfire. Indeed, the occurrence, in more than one case, was made an occasion for carousing, midnight revelry, and fuddling*, and which in certain quarters was continued for some days.
A great many of the townsfolk were not a little chagrined at the idea that the notorious body-snatcher should be allowed to rest unmolested within the prison walls, the existing feeling being that the leniency which was shown him was altogether unmerited, and not the kind of treatment which ought to have been meted out to one who had been caught red-handed in the execution of an offence unpardonable in the eyes of humanity and an outrage on civilization. And so, by way of protest, the indignant lieges more than once made an attempt to enter the Tolbooth, with a view of giving effect to a freely-expressed desire that the monster, bound head and foot, should be brought to the front of the piazza and shot dead before the eyes of the populace. Because of this renewed exhibition of hostility, the burgh officers had their wits severely taxed and they certainly were obliged to exercise more than their usual discretion in their mode of treating the prisoner under their charge, who, in consequence of the embittered state of public feeling against him, was provided with more than the usual protection and surveillance afforded by the authorities to the ordinary run of criminals.
And while all these things had been going on, Scott of Gilston, a leading actor in the memorable drama, still lingered in the vicinity, a specially-interested eye-witness of the highly exciting spectacle. By more than one person the farmer of Gilston was approached with the request that he should consent to head an attacking force for the purpose of bearding the lion in his den, and forcing him to the open. Scott, however, had no sympathy with such a proposal. Now that the fox had been run to earth and was safely within the grasp of the law, he was inclined, after such an eventful night’s work, to let well alone, and to leave the authorities to take that course which to them might seem best.
“Come on, Scott,” cried the onlookers, “let the badger be drawn, and we’ll gie him a warm reception.”
But no; conscious that he had done his duty, Scott, wisely as he thought, declined to be a party to any attempt to harass or annoy the authorities, or to render the situation more critical than it really was. Notwithstanding the refusal of the doughty farmer, groups of people continued to hover around the Town-House nursing their wrath to keep it warm, and generally indulging in speculations as to the ultimate upshot of the night’s procedure and the subsequent fate of the terror-stricken Resurrectionist. A number of the more restless members of the community suspicious as to the somewhat mysterious disappearance of the second Resurrectionist man put their heads together to deliberate as to organising a search or vigilance party with the object of ascertaining the whereabouts of the runaway, as the opinion was pretty current that the coward was lurking in some not far distant hiding-place.
It will be remembered that this individual left the gig on its entering the town, at the West Port, and with the view of throwing Scott and the other followers off the scent, hurried along the Bo’ness Road as fast as his legs could carry him. At the time of this ruse the people, whose attention had been directed to the strange vehicle, were entirely ignorant of the facts of the case, and consequently paid little or no attention to the flight of the foolhardy accomplice; but Scott was not to be so easily gulled. With a quickness of comprehension which was characteristic of the man, the popular tenant of Gilston saw the meaning of the adroit manoeuvre at a glance, and it was rather a disappointment to the scheming Resurrectionists that Scott refused to pursue the trail over which the proverbial red herring had been so quickly, and so ‘cutely drawn.
“Na, na,” said Scott, “never mind that ane, there’s corpse in the gig – follow the gig.”
And so in this way the second man made good his escape, although the mere matter of making his escape was not, as stated, the primary object of the knavish shift. Of course the gig, although slackening its pace somewhat at this point, never stopped, and after the man jumped from the vehicle, proceeded on its way until seized by Rab Harvie near his own dwelling. The man’s hasty disappearance was generally accounted for by the belief that he had left the main road at the Dogwell Acre, with the view of steering his course by the back of the Loch – or as he evidently thought – across the fields, and in that way join his companion and the gig at the other end of the town, or somewhere on the Edinburgh road. Be that as it may, one thing was clear, the Resurrectionist – who was the younger man of the two – was obviously no stranger to the locality, or to the ground over which he traversed.
As we have said, a search party was organised, composed of a number of the representatives of the leading leather industries in the burgh. Scouts were dispatched here and there, and every nook and corner in the locality, where it was thought the fugitive might find a temporary resting place, was visited, but all to no purpose. The bird had flown, and was nowhere to be found. And this was not to be wondered at, considering the interval which had elapsed from the time the man left the gig at the West Port, till the search was instituted. Had the people given chase at the time, there was every likelihood that a speedy capture would have been the result. Probably, the knowing one, suspicions at the delay of the vehicle and his colleague, had deemed it prudent to steer clear of the burgh and its surroundings, especially after the exciting chase from Gilston to Linlithgow. At all events, the absconding Resurrectionist was never again heard of.
The horse having been fed and comfortably quartered for the night, the inhabitants, who were gradually becoming more reconciled, began to draw nearer their own firesides, there to reflect on the awful sin that rested on the heads of the perpetrators of such an unseemly outrage. And it should be mentioned that even those of the inhabitants who had not during that night crossed the threshold of their own doors, were by this time quite conversant with all the facts of the case, so quickly had the tidings been carried from house to house.
“Hech, sirs, but folk are no’ safe noo-a-days, even in the grave.”
“Weel-a-wat, it’s an awful thing tae think that some folk will e’en disturb the sleep o’ the peacefu’ deid.”
“They’ve an awfu’ lat tae account for wha dae sic things.”
Such were the remarks which were heard that night, and for some days after, as one sauntered along the High Street, past little knots of burghers (male and female) who, every here and there, stood discussing the pros and cons of the matter with their neighbours and friends. And in not a few cases the conversation turned in the direction of “oor ain kirkyard,” and among the women folk fears and gloomy forebodings were indulged in, and many and earnest were the hopes expressed that the graves of dear-departed friends who silently reposed beneath the venerable shadow of old St Michael’s Church might not be disturbed by the ruthless hand of the relentless Resurrectionist.
All having been done that could possibly be done in the way of emphasizing the indignation of the town’s folk at the conduct of the two Edinburgh scoundrels – for by this time it had been ascertained that they hailed from there – a number of the shoemakers and others who had played a part in the exciting drama went off in quest of the farmer of Gilston with the intention of showing their gratitude and appreciation of the services he had rendered that evening, for, in truth, he had been the hero of the hour. Having spotted their man, the redoubtable Scott was laid hold of – not after the manner of the Resurrectionist, however – and hoisted on to the shoulders of two of his admirers, and was carried in triumph to one of the places of refreshment at the West Port. The farmer and his admirers were escorted by a large following, and the scene, which had been one of stirring excitement and turmoil, was now transformed into a time of rejoicing and jubilation. It was a case of reverting from grave to gay, and adjourning from labour to refreshment. All being comfortably seated round the festive board – where, of course, the place of honour was given to the unostentatious farmer – the tappit hen* was broucht ben, and each and all having charged their glasses, the health of Scott was pledged with the utmost enthusiasm, with the addendum that he might be long spared to reap “mony a guid crap,” and be a terror to all evil-doers, particularly Resurrectionist men. Scott thanked his friends for their good wishes, and promised, on behalf of himself and his “wee grey pony,” that should their services ever again be required in such a cause, they would be found ready and willing to do their duty in the interests of humanity and common decency. Again and again the gill-stoups were replenished, and the utmost hilarity prevailed. The night went on with songs and noise, until at length the much-respected, much-honoured farmer was obliged to mount his grey mare Meg, and, under more agreeable auspices that those which had brought him to Linlithgow, Scott, with many expressions of goodwill and Godspeed, proceeded on the return journey to Gilston. With the departure of Scott, the other fraternisers, under the happy influence of the bold, inspiring Barleycorn, made tracks for their respective domiciles, which it was conjectured, they all reached in due course, and in divers ways.
Next day the inhabitants, although in a more settled state of mind, were curious to know what turn events would take, and, with the view of eliciting information, this query was heard on all hands – “What will they do with the Resurrectionist?” The man, of course, was still confined in the old prison, closely guarded by the town’s officials. As we have pointed out, the tidings of the outrage and subsequent arrest of the Edinburgh body-snatcher spread far and near with great rapidity, and the feeling of indignation was not restricted to the burgh and neighbourhood of Linlithgow. Just as people were conjecturing as to what steps were likely to be taken by the authorities to punish the offender, a report got abroad in the burgh that the employees at the Carron Ironworks were dispatching on the morrow a contingent of men with a cargo of brimstone to suffocate the wretch who, by his dastardly act, had so basely trifled with and wounded the human feelings, and at the same time caused such terrible consternation and annoyance among the people of the neighbourhood.
The rumour reached the ears of those in authority, the Magistrates, fearing – in face of the amount of credence which seemed to be given to the story – that there really might be something in the rumour, resolved to have the Resurrectionist surreptitiously removed to Edinburgh without further delay. In this they were successful, and few, if any, of the residents knew until he was well on the journey that the man had been removed from the precincts of the burgh. With the lapse of a day or two, after reaching Edinburgh, the prisoner, it was said, was subjected to a process of judicial catechising or precognising, but that no real charge was ever preferred against him, and it was believed then, as it is still, that he virtually went Scot free.
The conduct of the authorities was freely commented upon and severely censored by the people of Linlithgow, who viewed in such leniency an incentive to others to go and do likewise. As for the Resurrectionist himself, however, he appeared to have been exceedingly grateful for the kindness and indulgence shown him by the administrators of the law, and in proof of this, it was afterwards reported that on his release he at once proceeded to pursue his nefarious calling in the neighbourhood of Gilmerton, near Edinburgh, where outrages of a similar kind had been of pretty frequent occurrence. [but see note 1 below].
So far as can be remembered by the older inhabitants of the burgh, the names of the Resurrectionists were never ascertained, at all events by the people of Linlithgow. A number of inhabitants, who were eye-witnesses of the occurrence, are still alive, and to them we are indebted for many of the facts recorded in these articles. It was at one time surmised that the perpetrators of the outrage discovered by Scott of Gilston were students, but this theory was a very unlikely one, both from the apparent age and general aspect and intelligence of the individuals, the consensus of opinion going more to show that the Resurrectionist Men belonged to the lower classes of society.
The following rhyming effusion, or as such productions were called in olden time, “Chapman’s Ballant*” was published in connection with, and at the time of the arrest of the Resurrectionist at Linlithgow:
“SEIZURE EXTRAORDINARY AT LINLITHGOW, BY MR SCOTT, SEN., OF GILSTON, AND OTHERS! March 19th, 1823
Aware of the necessity of subjects to those who give lectures upon the structure of the human frame, and convinced of the advantages resulting from a minute inspection of particular cases: yet we will enter into the feelings of those whose burying places have been robbed and their dead exposed and mangled in the manner which has so frequently and recently occurred; and hold up to contempt those Reptiles called Resurrection men. Would it not extricate from the shocking dilemma of robbing graves, and answer the ends of Justice, and Humanity as well, to give the body of every criminal who forfeits life for dissection, and have Anatomical, and Wax preparations, and engravings more generally used?
Though Aesculapius sons may mourn When Resurrection men are shorn Of all their booty, and their race Are stained with shame and black disgrace, We will rejoice at their condition. Behold them on an expedition, They to the churchyard take the road, And there they mark the greenest sod, Then dig and bear the corpse away, Like Tigers hunting for their prey; Toss back the shroud as in disgrace, Then in the Phaeton safely place The unconscious corpse. - Revolting scene, Some have in dunghills hidden been, And in the face of open day. The Monsters have them borne away. What hearts! hard as the nether millstone, But softened by bold SCOTT OF GILSTON. Brave Scott! who won the mead of praise, Pursued the Ruffians through their ways, Nor stops until he overtakes, And lo! demands he boldly makes. Where is your warrant? My warrant’s here, Secure his horse. The crowd then cheer, And while he goes for legal measures, Some near espied the Monster’s treasures, Three naked corpses! Shocking sight! Indignant feelings burst outright, And without Warrant, Judge, or Jury, Did beat and bruise him in their fury Almost into another corpse. Some called to kill the harmless horse; But all agreed to corpse the Gig. A flaming faggot’s brought with speed, And lo! they quickly overturn her, Spokes from their eyes are torn asunder, And every joint which firmly bound her, Then burnt in triumph all the spoil; And lo! upon this funeral pile, In Effigy his Rachen blaz’d! The wondering crowd indignant gaz’d, xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Till Mr Scott some did espy, And lo! he’s carried shoulder high, From Li’thgow Cross to the West Port, Where in Scotch drink and port o’ port His health was drunk, and all him praise. He, when parting, most emphatic says, “Was public fury stronger turn’d When here the Covenants were burned?”
Should the learned Corporation of Surgeons still be at a loss how to procure subjects, without having recourse to the revolting expedient of robbing the Graves of their peaceful Inhabitants, the Printer of this would refer them to the following quotation from THE TIMES of Dec., 1822, which he hopes will relieve them of their difficulty:- “We hope speedily to hear that this learned Corporation has come to an unanimous resolution that every member shall and will direct by his last will and testament that his body shall be given to his surviving colleagues for the benefit of anatomical science.” THE GLASGOW JOURNAL of Dec. 20th, 1822 adds “The proposal is judicious; but might it not be improved by the surgeons devoting also the bodies of their wives and children to the edification of the students?”R. TAYLOR, Printer, Falkirk.
The bodies taken from the gig and conveyed to an apartment in the Town House were found to be in a nude state. In those days an old barbaric idea regarding the offence of body-snatching, and one which was said to have obtained in more primitive ages, seems to have been inherited by the Resurrectionists. In earlier decades there would appear to have been no law by which a person could be proceeded against criminally for robbing the tomb of its dead, provided the clothing or body-shroud was left behind. In the eyes of the callous Resurrectionist, the Scriptural doctrine of “dust thou art, to dust shalt thou return,” afforded him sufficient protection in the pursuit of his fiendish and heinous avocation, and that in taking the human remains from the sacred precincts of God’s Acre, he believed he was taking possession of that which belonged to no earthly being. And so, in keeping with this monstrous idea, it was the practice of the Resurrectionist, when engaged in the securing of subjects, to divest them of every vestige of raiment, as seems to have been done in this particular case.
At the time of the demolition of the ill-fated vehicle in the vicinity of the Cross, parts of the woodwork of the gig, spokes of the wheels, springs, & c, were carried off by several of the onlookers as souvenirs of the remarkable event, and even to this day there are those in the ancient burgh who can boast of being the possessors of particular remnants of the Resurrectionist gig, and which might with a degree of appropriateness be described as brands plucked from the fire. Indeed it is said that a former resident, named John Rae, who for many years was the only representative of a once thriving industry in Linlithgow – nail-making – had in his possession for many a day a carving knife and fork made from the springs of the vehicle; and until a few years ago, part of the machine found a resting place in one of the lofts connected with the Rivaldsgreen tanwork, where it was supposed to have lain undisturbed from about the time of the historical event until it too was consumed in a conflagration at those works.
It turned out that the trap had been hired and the owner sued the town of Linlithgow for his loss. £70 was raised by public subscription to defend the action which eventually seems to have been dropped.
[A subscription was also soon raised for the purpose of presenting Mr Scott of Gilston with a testimonial in acknowledgement of the services rendered on this occasion, which was in the form of a silver snuff-box, valued at over five pounds.]
The account given by James Love varies slightly from that narrated above but is substantially the same. According to Love:
“About five o’clock on the afternoon of Wednesday, the 19th March, 1823, a servant of Mr Scott, farmer at Gilston, near Polmont was returning home, when he saw two men taking something from a dunghill which lay in a park belonging to his master’s farm, near the side of the Edinburgh Road, which he at first thought might be smuggled whisky. His curiosity being excited, he watched their movements attentively, and soon observed them drag something like a dead body over the dyke to a gig that stood nearby, and this he thought he saw them repeat a second and third time. He immediately hastened to the farm and informed his master what he had seen. Mr Scott, who had for some time previous been suspicious that bodies had been disinterred from the churchyard of Polmont, immediately mounted a horse and went instantly in pursuit.”
The Falkirk Herald of 25 July 1867, relying upon the memory of a single resident, puts the time and date of the commotion in the town centre as “about seven o’ clock one evening during the month of July or August in the year 1822.” It too refers to a herd boy making the original observation at the dunghill that afternoon. It also adds some incidental detail. Scott, we are told, rode with neither stirrups nor spurs on the type of saddle which was commonly used in those days called “sunks*,” and he kept his pony going at full speed by probing him continually behind with a long nail or spike held in his right hand. He wore knee breeches, long stockings and shoes. He spoke with a very strong burr, so that when he first overtook the gig and began to cry out at Linlithgow Bridge, “Crrrpse in the gig, crrpse in the gig, crrpse, crrpse,” as they drove furiously past, no one could make out what he said, or what was the cause of the outcry.
A broadsheet in the collection of the National Library of Scotland (Shelf number L.C.Fol.74(072)) printed at Edinburgh in 1823 by Robert Forrest tells us that on 2 June 1823 Thomas Stevenson appeared before the High Court accused of “wickedly and feloniously stealing dead bodies, and in particular the dead body of Janet Moir, from the church-yard of Larbert, in Stirlingshire, on the 13th or 14th of March last.” He pled “Not Guilty.” The jury was in no doubt about his guilt and so his lawyer asked that the treatment he had received from the citizenry of Linlithgow be taken into account when he was sentenced. The judge, the same Lord Pitmilly who would later sit in judgement on William Burke (of Burke and Hare fame), noted that he been previously convicted under the name of Hodge, of violating the sepulchres of the dead agreed that Stevenson had already been previously convicted under the name of Hodge of violating the sepulchres of the dead. Lord Pitmilly said,
“in awarding punishment, the Court could not be influenced by the popular estimate of this offence, nor by the contrary notion, of the injury which science would sustain from the offence being visited with a severe punishment; but the Court would only be guided by the law of the land. Taking into consideration the previous conviction of the panel, and the inefficacy of a lenient sentence in restraining the pannel from pursuing his trade of body-lifting, he conceived it was the duty of this Court to prevent him from practising it any longer in this country. He lamented from his heart the maltreatment which the pannel had received from the crowd, when he was apprehended; but that circumstance could have no effect in altering the judgment of the Court. The persons who maltreated the pannel, if brought here, would have their punishment measured out to them, according to their iniquity; for it was not for the people of Linlithgow to take the law into their own hands. At present it was only this pannel’s offence which they were called upon to punish: and considering the aggravated nature of the offence, as well as that it was committed by a person previously convicted, he should propose that he should be transported beyond seas for seven years.”
The broadsheet also mentions James Alexander and William Calderwood, who were presumably tried alongside Thomas Stevenson/Hodge. James Alexander, had previously been convicted of an assault upon a female, and was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment; whilst William Calderwood, previously convicted of deforcing revenue officers, was sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment, and to give surety in £40 for his good conduct for five years (http://digital.nls.uk/broadsides.cfm/id/15327/transcript/1 quoted in Walker 2011). It is not known if Stevenson’s sentence was carried out.
Scots Words used Above:
- Ballant – ballad.
- Fuddling – get drunk.
- Orra – spare or unemployed person.
- Rachan – rauchan or rachen – a plaid or wrap, a clumsy garment.
- Souter – shoemaker.
- Sunk –a straw pad or cushion used as a substitute for a saddle.
- Tappit or Tappint hen – a pewter tankard containing a standard measure, its lid resembling a fowl’s tuft.
|Gillespie, R.||1868||Round about Falkirk.|
|Love, J.||1908||Local Antiquarian Notes and Queries. Volume 1.|
|Walker, J.||2011||Burke & Hare and Helen: Falkirk District and the West Port Murders.|